Through foster care, homelessness, health crises and depression, one thing has remained a constant in Roxy Stan's life.
"My pets," said Stan, 68, who lives at an assisted living center in Natomas. "I have never been without one."
That streak might have come to an end last year, if not for a new program by the Sacramento SPCA that has helped keep Stan and her beloved Siamese cat, Katy, together.
When she and Katy fell ill at about the same time, Stan found herself in a pickle. Suffering from a disabling respiratory condition among other things, she was unable to get Katy to the vet in a timely manner, pay costly bills for the cat's serious infection, and even provide basic care at home.
Enter the Society for the Prevention to Animals' Senior Care Program, which offers help to needy pet owners who are 65 and older.
The program sends volunteers to the homes of older people with lower incomes who need help tending to their pets. The volunteers do everything from walking dogs to cleaning kitty litter boxes to giving medicine to reluctant felines, and seniors get transportation and financial help with veterinary care.
Studies have documented a wide range of benefits for seniors who have animal companions. Research has suggested that Alzheimer's patients seem to be less anxious after spending time with a pet, and that owning a pet can help lower blood pressure in seniors. Studies have shown that animal companionship can give an emotional lift to lonely people of all ages.
The local SPCA's program is one of just a handful in the country, said senior services coordinator Shari Lowen.
"The goal is to help seniors and pets stay together," reducing the number of animals that older people give up to shelters because they no longer can physically or financially take care of them.
"For a lot of seniors," Lowen said, "having a pet gives them a reason to get up in the morning."
That certainly has been true for Stan.
"I haven't known joy all that much in my life," she said. "My pets have given me real joy, and love."
Stan, who spent her early life in Nebraska, counted a calf named Herbie as her first animal companion.
"I took really good care of him," she said, until her parents served him for dinner one night. "I was devastated," she said. "I never took care of a calf again."
She was a foster child for much of her life, she said, moving from home to home and getting to know a wide variety of pets including dogs with such names as Shep and Maggie and Horatio.
Stan suffered abuse at some of the homes, she said. She comforted herself by listening to music on her transistor radio and accepting the "unconditional love" of pets.
As an adult, Stan has enjoyed the company of a dog named Alexis Star and cats named Penny, Patches and Sassy. Her small apartment is decorated with pictures of her late companions.
Katy came into her life in 2009 as a fluffy ball of fur just 13 weeks old. "We had an instant connection," Stan said.
These days, Katy likes to lie on Stan's chest in the evening, giving her kitty kisses as she rests in her easy chair reading or watching television.
"She likes the warmth of my breath," Stan said. The cat curls up next to her in bed when she goes to sleep at night.
When Katy got sick last year, "the veterinarian said they couldn't do much for her because I was economically challenged," said Stan, who worked as a project manager for a storage company until her health declined. She now lives on a monthly Social Security check.
She heard about the SPCA services through her caseworker from Sacramento County's Senior Companion program, and phoned Lowen to see if she met income and other qualifications. She did, and "the rest is history," Stan said.
SPCA volunteer Wendy Bright, herself a senior, comes to Stan's home every Thursday. "Wendy is a doll," Stan said. The two have become friends.
The women typically visit for a while before Bright empties the litter box, entertains Katy with her favorite toys and, when necessary, chases the cat down to give her medicines.
If a trip to the vet is in order, Bright drives her and Stan there. Katy's treatments are discounted by a veterinary office that takes part in the SPCA's program.
The home program is part of a wide variety of services that the agency offers to seniors, including discounts on adoptions and spay and neuter surgeries, free telephone assistance with pet behavior problems, dog training classes and free vaccination clinics.
Stan believes Bright's weekly visits just may have saved Katy's life.
"I'm not sure what I would have done if I had not found out about this program," Stan said, teasing Katy with a fishing pole toy. "I was so worried about her. But I think we're on top of everything now."
For information about the SPCA's programs and services for people 65 and older, visit www.sspca.org or call (916) 504-2845.